The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has work to do to make the system safer, said General Manager Steve Poftak during an interview on WBUR’s Radio Boston program Tuesday.
“We’ve worked to build a stronger culture of safety,” he said. “It’s not enough. . . There’s work to be done.”
Despite nearly doubling the size of its safety department and an “unprecedented” rate of investment, a string of safety incidents since this summer have shown the transit network is still vulnerable to calamity.
It’s been a rough few months for the MBTA. A Green Line crash on July 30 sent 27 people to the hospital. A man fell to his death through a dilapidated stair case near the JFK/UMass T station on Sept. 11. An ascending escalator at the Back Bay T station suddenly whizzed backwards on Sept. 26, sending nine to the hospital. And a Red Line car derailed and collided with a platform last week, upending commutes for an entire day.
Poftak said he is limited by what he can say about the recent incidents, citing ongoing litigation like the recent lawsuit filed by victims of the escalator malfunction. He said he has not met with any of the people injured in that incident.
Asked about a 15-year delay in implementing an anti-collision technology on the Green Line that likely would have prevented July’s crash when a speeding train crashed into a slower-moving one, Poftak said the process was complicated by a need to maintain service levels.
The National Transportation Safety Board first recommended the tech in 2009 and the MBTA estimates it will be fully operational by 2024. Poftak said he has a meeting scheduled for Wednesday to determine if the agency can speed up the process.
“Obviously the distance from the initial recommendation to implementation is longer than we would have liked,” he said. “Developing a system that works. . . has taken a lot of time.”
As part of its daily efforts to prevent safety incidents, each morning, the MBTA’s senior team reviews issues that have come in through the agency’s hotline, Poftak said, noting that its safety team has nearly doubled in size. And the MBTA is spending more on capital investments than it ever has before. This fiscal year, the MBTA plans to spend $2 billion, up from around $600 million in fiscal year 2014.
Still, the MBTA remains without enough dedicated funding into the future, Poftak said, and is still plagued by past underinvestment.
A recent report from business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayer’s Foundation found that the MBTA is $13 billion short on capital investments it plans to make over the next ten years to maintain its current system.
“We have decades of underinvestment that we are up against, so one or two years of this extraordinary level is not going to suffice,” he said. “We’re going to have to do it for a while.”
The safety incidents and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have not stopped people from taking the T, Poftak said. Buses have made the biggest comeback, he said, back to about 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels, and up to 90 percent on some lines.